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2/26/23 Sermon - Liz McGough

View today's sermon on our YouTube channel:

I’m so grateful to be here with you this morning to share a bit about what we are doing at Pilgrim Lodge, the Outdoor Ministries program of the Maine Conference United Church of Christ. We are located in West Gardiner on the banks of Lake Cobboseecontee. What a gift it has been for me to have the honor of serving as the Director throughout the last year, understanding that Pilgrim Lodge is a beloved place and program for so many people and such an impactful ministry of our conference. It has been significant in my own life as I started going to Pilgrim Lodge when I was entering 3rd grade. I spent my summers during college on staff and a week each year throughout my adulthood volunteering as a program leader for the elementary school camp that we called “Planting Seeds, Growing Hope.”

Now that I have returned to Pilgrim Lodge as the Director, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the questions:

  • Why summer camp?

  • Why Pilgrim Lodge?

  • Why now?

While I sometimes search my memories for some mountain-top moment or some Jesus-in-the-Wilderness experience that might exhibit the transformative power of summer camp, instead, I have come to realize that for me, the growth happened in small, quiet ways over many years. It happened in a space where I felt safe, where I felt grounded in the peace of nature, where I was present and open, and where there were adult leaders ready to nurture me in my faith. I’ll share with you a lesson from my childhood that has stuck with me.

I love a good object lesson, so I went searching through camp for some props. I’ve got lentils from the kitchen and I’ve got some ping pong balls (we love playing on the Ping Pong Porch!). Let’s imagine that these lentils represent all of the little things we need to do in a day or the details that we need to manage (homework, groceries, social media, after-school schedules, dishes, processing the news, worrying about what we’re wearing, paying the bills). Now, let’s imagine that these ping pong balls represent the important parts of ourselves in our core – the things that make us who we are: our faith, our values, our priorities, our loved ones, our connection to ourselves….. Sometimes, there are just so many things in life, that it is easy to lose focus on what is important because it simply doesn’t always fit.

Can anyone relate?

Life these days can be overwhelming.

Just a handful of weeks ago I was at a conference with other camp directors. A mental health professional was the guest speaker and he told a story about talking with adults and teens at a high school he was visiting. When he was with the parents, he asked “who has hope for the future of your children?” Many adults, not all, raised their hands. When he was with the teenage children of those parents later, he asked a similar question of them, “who has more hope for the future than for today?” Not a single teenager raised their hand.

Psychologists are telling us that the new epidemic to worry about among our children centers around anxiety and depression. Having lived through the pandemic, they live in a world of helplessness and uncertainty. They are witness to enraged politics and active shooter violence. They spend more time behind screens than outdoors and less time with other people than decades ago. They face the unknown future in a world of climate change. While it is not surprising that this leads to anxiety and depression, it is alarming. As a mother of small children, there are days when I feel despair.

But I am not here today to leave you with despair, nor was that the message of the mental health professional at the conference I attended. In fact, his message was that camp is a place of Hope. He defined Hope as “an ability to move forward and believe in what is to come.” Camp creates the conditions for wellness and we have the opportunity to come together to offer Hope to our campers. We do this by creating the conditions that are an antidote to factors that cause anxiety and depression.

Friends, when we think about the ping pong balls that don’t always fit and the world we share with our children, I would venture to believe that the anxiety and depression that they feel is not limited to them alone. We all are navigating uncharted territory together. And, lest we believe that Pilgrim Lodge is only for children, I offer you my favorite data point about camp: the average age of a Pilgrim Lodge camper during the 2022 season was 37 years old. We are a program that serves people across the full lifespan from little babies to God’s children who are advanced in years. With retreats for adults, families and grandparents and grandchildren, the good news is that we never need to outgrow being a camper! As I talk to you about our program and our campers, I welcome you to hear this as an invitation to you as well.

Here is how we are about the work of Hope at Pilgrim Lodge:

At Pilgrim Lodge we give campers a break from screens and daily routines and the pace of being plugged in by simply being in nature. Reflective time outdoors called “Morning Watch,” nature hikes, building fairy houses, swimming in the lake or playing capture the flag on the island among the trees….they are all opportunities we provide to set a different rhythm, to connect with creation, and to enliven a sense of wonder that opens our brains and our hearts.

At Pilgrim Lodge, we create a safe space for children to have independence. Stepping beyond the relationships at home into an environment of nurturing adults gives campers practice at independence that can lead to a greater sense of self and the confidence that they will need to navigate their way into adulthood. Everything from managing their own wardrobe for a week to trying a new craft gives them the space to learn new skills. At the same time, campers do cabin clean-up with their peers and take turns Jumping tables…setting and clearing the food for one another. They learn accountability to a community and the value of team work.

At Pilgrim Lodge, campers are invited to take healthy risks…from wearing a blindfold during a team-building challenge to paddling a boat with a new friend…camp creates a structured environment to stretch and grow in healthy ways.

At Pilgrim Lodge, we create the conditions for belonging. We affirm each camper’s unique and God-given identity. We celebrate one another’s gifts and talents. We address conflict with restorative strategies, sharing perspectives, empathy, and impact. Rev. Peter Ilgenfritz reflected on his experience as a chaplain during Camp Pride last summer, sharing: “Each day I experienced a community of an ever widening and changing circle where kids who, in other contexts, would be left on the outside find their place on the inside.” He witnessed campers delight as they “found a community of fun, joy, play and connection.”

Last, and perhaps most importantly…what sets us apart, what makes us different than archery camp or horseback riding camp or camp with water trampolines….is that at Pilgrim Lodge the field where we grow this Hope is a faith-centered environment. When we start each session, we ground ourselves in three overarching goals: to spend our time loving God, loving each other and loving ourselves. I still picture myself as a 10-year-old in chapel listening to the stories shared by my peers. I love the feel of the forest labyrinth under my bare feet when I look to the shimmering trees and listen for God. We invite campers into the conversation and ask, “what does this scripture mean to you?” Campers get to plan and share the twice-daily worship services with each other, we start the day with chapel and watch the sun set over the lake during evening vespers.

In today’s Scripture, we hear about a time when Jesus had been on retreat in the wilderness. He took a break from his day-to-day life among people and his day-to-day routines to turn his focus to God. After this long period of time, these 40 days, he was put to a test. “Turn stones into bread. Throw yourself from this building and escape injury to prove your God. ‘Follow me’ said his tempter (this figure called Satan or the Devil) and all the riches of the world will be yours.’ Each time he was tested, Jesus was resolved, disciplined, confident in his devotion to God: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve God only.”

I believe that this story from Matthew is an invitation to consider the spaces of retreat in our own lives. Maybe it is this time shared together on Sunday mornings when we can be together in this gentle and welcoming place to turn our focus on God. Maybe we have our own rituals and moments in our day-to-day lives when we can open to the presence of God. I will venture to offer you an invitation to come for time in the wilderness, time in retreat at camp, time in the wilderness.

Now a retreat at camp is not quite the same as Jesus’ retreat in the wilderness. Plenty of food is available and we even take care of the dishes. There is no test to turn stones into bread or to jump from buildings when the time is done at camp. But, I do think that we are invited to look at the world around us and consider what guides our priorities, what helps us stay focused on what is important, how God might guide our journey. I think we return back to the world to explore the questions of our modern life.

So, back to our ping pong balls….if we reorient around the things that are most important as our core – our faith, our values, our loved ones, our priorities, our connection to ourselves – if we plant our roots in these things, it is possible that all of the other little things that take up space can actually fit. Time at Pilgrim Lodge is an opportunity to retreat into the wilderness, as Jesus did, to reorient, to rest, to ground ourselves in the peace that nature offers, to build up our strength through conversation and laughter and song and play and to give ourselves the space to hear ourselves think by taking a break from all of the inputs and demands on our time, attention and energy.

Grounding ourselves in who we are at our core gives us the strength, energy, resiliency and even passion to plant and water God’s fields. Time at camp, at church, in a safe and gentle space – wherever that may be for each of us can open us to God’s love and work in our lives. The work of camp is the business of tilling the soil for God’s great love to work to grow in each of us. We don’t always get to see how those seeds manifest into plants that grow and blossom, but we create the conditions for Hope, for wellness. Openness to nature, personal growth that comes from stretching in a new environment, celebration of ourselves and one another, community and connectedness, exploration of our faith together. We create the conditions for Hope.

Time in the wilderness in a community focused on God, our spirits and our Faith, reminds us that all the important elements can fit. With that reorientation, we can find Hope. You are invited to come, participate, fill your cup and find Hope.

Liz Charles McGough – Pilgrim lodge - Director

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